Michigan's Au Sable River hatches get fly fishermen going

Hot days? Check. Warm, muggy nights? Check. No rain? Check. Big hatches of giant Michigan mayflies? Finally!

"We really banged them last night. We had a great spinner fall, then that was followed by a hatch," said Phil Cook, a guide at the Fly Factory on the Au Sable River in Grayling. "We actually did better on the hatchers."

He was talking about the annual hatch of Hexagenia limbata mayflies, one of the most anticipated events on the fly fisherman's calendar. These inch-long insects are among the biggest of their kind in the world, and while individually they don't provide a lot of calories, they hatch in clouds, bringing big cannibal brown trout out to feed on them.

There's only one drawback - they hatch after dark, and it's also after dark when they return to the river to mate and lay eggs a couple of nights later.

"That was fun. I've never done anything like it. And I caught the biggest trout I ever got on a dry fly," said James McKinney of Porter, Ind., who fished the hex hatch for the first time downstream from McMasters Bridge between Grayling and Luzerne.

"It was after midnight, but I could still see bugs flying up from the water. My cousin told me to listen for fish feeding," McKinney said. "I heard this 'gloop' noise and guess it was about 20 feet away. I flipped a fly downstream toward, and a few seconds later something almost pulled the rod out of my hand."

It was a 20-inch brown trout, one of four fish over 18 inches that the McKinney cousins landed that night. James added, "You should tell people who are trying this for the first time that they should get to the river while it's still light. I was surprised by how disoriented you get trying to wade in the dark. I fell in once and nearly did twice more."

North America's largest mayfly began hatching sporadically about 10 days ago on Lake Margrethe, located west of Grayling, at the stump pond just upstream from town and in the Mio area.

By mid-week, heavy hatches were occurring on the Au Sable as far upstream as McMasters Bridge and working their way upriver.

"We should be getting good hatches in the TU (Trout Unlimited) water above Stephan Bridge Road by this weekend," said Don Kirk of Saginaw as he sorted out flies, mosquito repellent and a small light that mounts in the bill of his cap.

"One thing I learned a long time ago is that if you fish at night, you have to know what stuff is in which pocket of your fishing vest. If you pare it down to just the stuff you'll need, and take the other stuff out, life will be a lot more efficient," he said.

Ron Wilson Sr., a lawyer from Harrison, and his son, Ron Wilson Jr., superintendent of the Cass City schools, also were heading out to fish in the McKenzie riverboat they built together in 1993. But they were fishing in daylight because of some ailments that make it impossible for Ron Sr. to wade.

"Dad wanted to float this stretch between Stephan and McMasters (bridges) because we haven't floated it for a while. But if we decide to fish tonight as well, we'll probably fish the Manistee south of M-72," Ron Jr. said. "I've always done well there during the hex hatch."